New director of Christensen Institute, champion of 'disruptive innovation,' talks to EdScoop


Julia Freeland Fisher recently became the new director of the Christensen Institute, a think tank that promotes effective use of technology and blended learning methods in the classroom. She took over for Michael Horn, who co-founded the Institute in 2007 and is now a consultant for Entangled Solutions, a startup “innovation agency” for colleges and universities.

While she started her career in education, Freeland Fisher decided to go to Yale Law School to learn about the nuts and bolts of policy. Law school wasn’t the best place for this, she said, so she decided to teach a class on education reform. That’s when the Oakland, California, native met Horn, who hired her in 2013 as a research fellow before she could take the bar exam.

“It was probably the first time I actively closed a door and it felt like the right thing,” she said. “I joined because Michael’s work convinced me that technology is part of the future of education, and I wanted to be part of that conversation both as a voice, but also a watchdog to make sure this is actually happening in a way that’s good for kids.”

Read below for an edited and condensed version of a Q&A with Freeland Fisher.

EdScoop: What did you do before the Institute?

Julia Freeland Fisher: I started my career at NewSchools Venture Fund, which invests in startups in public education, and that was my primer in all things education reform. With [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan getting appointed, it was an era of new schools thinking about policy in a really proactive way because his administration was really friendly to entrepreneurs in education. At Yale [Law School], I taught a course on ed reform — taking big and innovative ideas and actually putting them into practice. It turns out I didn’t want to be a lawyer [laughing].

ES: Tell us a little bit about the Institute’s mission and how it aims to change public education.

JLL: We apply the theory of disruptive innovation to the public sector. In education, we’ve applied that to look at how online learning got its start and how it has grown over time. We’re not preaching online learning, but we set conditions in the market for the way that disruption is good for kids. There’s a real possibility that we just use technology to drive down the cost of educating kids without improving quality, and that, right now with the boom of edtech tools, we’re just veering toward digitizing the old system. Our research tries to think about what are all those conditions that we need to get in place to make sure this is student centered and with an eye toward equity.

ES: What is disruptive innovation? Can you define that?

JLL: It’s a process by which products and services become, over time, more accessible, more affordable and more foolproof. Typically, if you’re a new entrant in a market, you don’t target the high-flying companies — you target the low end of the market. Over time, [your product] gets better and you can serve more demanding customers. So to be concrete, online learning over a decade ago didn’t compete with face-to-face instruction. But over time, software programs have become vastly more sophisticated in how they deliver content and assess understanding.

ES: How do you see your policies or research work in practice?

JLL: I think the most concrete example is that blended learning has really spread very quickly across districts. So we’re often fielding requests from districts or state agencies around how to implement blended learning. Another area is teacher preparation programs. We’re oftentimes, like many voices in the ed reform movement, weighing in on issues that have been long debated. We offer a unique view of innovation to bring to bear on those debates, and more pressure on the system.

We have four
main efforts — one is blended learning research and talking about which models
fit [schools]. Another is looking at the role of the teacher within those
models. The third is looking at what I think is an undervalued currency in
education, which is social capital — how can we leverage technology to connect students
to new peers or adults they otherwise wouldn’t meet? And the fourth is higher education
work, moving away from the affordability debate and actually rethinking the business model to be sustainable.

ES: What is working in schools that use technology and what are the challenges?

JLL: What we were hearing in the field is that people are always pointing to charter schools doing blended learning, and we don’t have broad proof that blended learning is working. So we interviewed a number of districts that have pulled off using blended learning to drive up their graduation rates. The guiding principle we found is folks who implement blended learning to solve a particular problem rather than for its own sake tend to be more successful. During a workshop I was doing, I asked, “What is the problem you’re trying to solve in your district?” They said, “We’re trying to personalize learning.” And when I said why, they said “to personalize learning.” It has become this thing we’re implementing rather than an outcome we’re aiming for.

ES: What schools are doing it right?

JLL: A couple examples: One is a school in New Hampshire called MC2 [Making Community Connections Charter School], and they’re not using blended learning throughout their school, but they’ve thought critically about personalization and each student being on a path toward mastery. Summit [Charter School] is another example of having clear metrics and a design in mind. They began tracking college success and saw their students were not graduating college, so they went back and redesigned their approach.

ES: When you hear about schools using innovative, advanced blended learning methods, it’s usually happening at charter schools. Are traditional district schools also following this trend?

JLL: I think charter schools have been more proactive in some settings with more disruptive blended learning models. In district schools, you actually see alternative high schools as really ripe for these new models for credit recovery or dropout prevention. Those are district sandboxes for these new, more out-of-the-box models. We don’t think of charters as more disruptive or more promising by just their structure. We have seen exciting experiments in the charter sector that district schools can learn from.

ES: What do you see in the future for disruptive innovation?

JLL: I think we’re going to continue to look at how technology can be integrated to really change instruction. We should also be paying attention to metrics beyond just high test scores; we should be thinking about life outcomes. For example, most adults will agree that who you know matters. But a child’s network — his reservoir of social capital and ability to bank on that capital — remains largely determined by random luck. The luck of where children are born, whom their parents know, and who they happen to end up sitting next to in class. New metrics might include measures of the health and diversity of students’ networks, like their access to mentors and coaches and experts from a variety of industries. These relationships can in turn determine students’ ability to successfully navigate higher education and the labor market down the line.

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